Welcome… to JuraPark: Darwin’s Door On Tour

Article by: Harry T. Jones
Edited by:
J. D. Dixon, Lauren Malin, and Mia Wroe.

A photograph of an illustration of the vertebrates found at the Krasiejów dig site. Image by Harry Jones, taken at JuraPark Krasiejów.

Welcome… to JuraPark. Unfortunately, these weren’t the words we were greeted with as we entered through the gates of JuraPark Krasiejów, Poland.

Three members of our Darwin’s Door team, along with other University of Birmingham students, recently took the opportunity to participate in a current palaeontological dig based at JuraPark Krasiejów in southern Poland. We volunteered through a Wild Areas Network programme, and collaborated with the Belgian Palaeontological Association (BVP) while we worked there. The dig site attracted international attention in the mid-1990s following the discovery of the Late Triassic dinosauriform Silesaurus opolensis in the 1980s by stone quarrying there, and the exposure of a bone-bearing clay horizon in 1993 by local clay extraction workers. 

Since then, the area has become known as one of Europe’s largest mass graveyards of Triassic reptiles. The good state of preservation, the number of fossils and their variety have all contributed to numerous investigations into the fauna and flora of Triassic Krasiejów. Numerous fossils of both aquatic and terrestrial organisms have been found here, including the large amphibians Metoposaurus and Cyclotosaurus, as well as plant matter including seeds, cone scales and leaves up to 30 cm long. While we were there, a fossilised tree trunk ~ 2 m in length had just been discovered and subsequently covered for protection.

Some fossils, such as Metoposaurus skulls, have been left in situ for analysis with a dedicated Palaeontological Pavilion built around them (finished in 2012). This allows visitors to watch palaeontologists as they work, and walk over fossils via a glass floor raised above the earth.

Some of the fossils inside the Pavilion, most notably comprised of skulls. Image by Harry Jones, taken at JuraPark Krasiejów.

The excavation site and Pavilion are both located within JuraPark Krasiejów, which was initially built around the dig after its industrial use had been swapped for scientific research. The park celebrates the palaeontology of the area, as well as showcasing a wider appreciation of life through time and across the world. A Time Tunnel takes visitors from the birth of the universe all the way to modern life. The train moves along a tunnel with a screen depicting the events in 3D, below which lie models reflecting the on-screen events. Much of the park is dedicated to almost 250 life-size models of prehistoric creatures, including early reptiles and amphibians, some of the largest dinosaurs, and the megafauna of the Cenozoic.

A selection of life-size model prehistoric vertebrates in the park. Images by Harry Jones, taken at JuraPark Krasiejów.

We also spent some time in the Park of Science and Human Evolution, situated opposite the JuraPark, in which visitors take a virtual tour through time from 66 million years ago up until the present. Different key stages in human evolution are marked along the way by model replicas in glass enclosures designed to mimic the environment in which the human ancestors would have been found.  Within this museum, there is also a preparatory lab that we used to further investigate specimens retrieved from the dig site back in the JuraPark, and it is also open for visitors to observe how scientists prepare such specimens in a lab environment.

Outside the Park of Science and Human Evolution; human ancestors attempting to ward off the giant ape, Gigantopithecus; the preparatory lab with some young visitors. Available at: https://juraparkkrasiejow.pl/park-ewolucji/
A phytosaur tooth. Image by Adam Manning.

We spent a few days working at the dig site during our time at the JuraPark. Although we didn’t make any ground-breaking discoveries, our group found plenty of fossilised relics from the Triassic. Our finds comprised multiple metoposaur vertebrae, a clavicle, phytosaur teeth, reptile coprolites, innumerable bivalves, fish scales, and multiple plant remains, including a possible horsetail ancestor.

To our surprise, a camera crew turned up at the dig site for some of the time we were working there to obtain footage for a documentary about local palaeontology. As well as working in the field, we also handled specimens that had been taken to the preparatory lab in the human evolution museum in ‘eggs’; mounds of earth containing fossils that have been covered in a plaster of paris/fibreglass mesh then removed from their site of discovery. Our ‘eggs’, some of which had been made a decade ago, varied in their contents, but ranged from a skull with lower jaws and clavicles to many bone fragments.

Some of our group of volunteers being filmed at work. Image by Adam Manning.
An egg with a partially unearthed skull. Image by Elena Yazykova.

Our time in Poland was not limited to the JuraPark, as we also went on a number of excursions to other localities of interest. The first of these was a visit to the Krasiejów Museum, which houses some of the specimens found at the JuraPark dig site. We also visited another quarry (still in use today) to search for fossilised marine invertebrates, including brachiopods, bivalves, ammonites, and corals. We later took a guided tour around a town to take in its cultural and geological significance over the years.

Outside the Krasiejów Museum; Silesaurus plaque outside the museum. Images by Harry Jones.
Inside the Krasiejów Museum. Image by Harry Jones.

While our findings may not yield anything significant, the site will continue to be of great palaeontological value. Just this year, a paper was published regarding the diet of Silesaurus and how it is believed to have at least partially been insectivorous. This is due to beetle remains being present in its coprolites found at Krasiejów. Unfortunately, the dig site is reaching the end of the quarried face, preventing further excavation, making further discoveries in the not-so-distant future more difficult, but with stored specimens and ‘eggs’ awaiting further investigation, Krasiejów is sure to have more secrets of its past just waiting to be discovered.

Image References
[1] A photograph of an illustration of the vertebrates found at the Krasiejów dig site. Image by Harry Jones, taken at JuraPark Krasiejów.
[2], [3] Photos of the exterior and interior of The Palaeontological
Pavilion. Available at: https://www.dezeen.com/2015/05/29/paleontology-research-centre-polish-quarry-protects-prehistoric-reptiles-krasiejow-poland-ovo-grabczewscy-architekci-goczolowie-architekci/
[4] Some of the fossils inside the Pavilion, most notably comprised of skulls. Image by Harry Jones, taken at JuraPark Krasiejów.
[5], [6], [7] A selection of life-size model prehistoric vertebrates in the park. Images by Harry Jones, taken at JuraPark Krasiejów.
[8], [9], [10] Outside the Park of Science and Human Evolution; human ancestors attempting to ward off the giant ape, Gigantopithecus; the preparatory lab with some young visitors. Available at: https://juraparkkrasiejow.pl/park-ewolucji/
[11] A phytosaur tooth. Image by Adam Manning.
[12] Some of our group of volunteers being filmed at work. Image by Adam Manning.
[13] An egg with a partially unearthed skull. Image by Elena Yazykova.
[14], [15] Outside the Krasiejów Museum; Silesaurus plaque outside the museum. Images by Harry Jones.
[16] Inside the Krasiejów Museum. Image by Harry Jones.

Information References and Further Sources
[1] Dzik, J. (2003). A beaked herbivorous archosaur with dinosaur affinities from the early Late Triassic of Poland, Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology, 23 (3), pp. 556–574.
[2] JuraPark Krasiejów (2019). JuraPark. Available at: https://juraparkkrasiejow.pl/jurapark/. Accessed: 4th August 2019
[3] JuraPark Krasiejów (2019). Park Ewolucji [Park of Evolution]. Available at: https://juraparkkrasiejow.pl/park-ewolucji/. Accessed: 4th August 2019.
[4] Mairs, J. (2015). ‘Paleontology centre inside a quarry exhibits the bones of a prehistoric reptile’, dezeen, May 29 2015. Available at: https://www.dezeen.com/2015/05/29/paleontology-research-centre-polish-quarry-protects-prehistoric-reptiles-krasiejow-poland-ovo-grabczewscy-architekci-goczolowie-architekci/. Accessed: 4th August 2019.
[5] Qvarnström, M., Wernström, J.V., Piechowski, R., Tałanda, M., Ahlberg, P.E., Niedźwiedzki, G.  (2019). Beetle-bearing coprolites possibly reveal the diet of a Late Triassic dinosauriform, Royal Society Open Science, 6 (3), doi: 10.1098/rsos.181042.
[6] Science in Poland (2016). ‘European Centre of Palaeontology established at the University of Opole’, Science in Poland, February 8 2016. Available at: http://scienceinpoland.pap.pl/en/news/news%2C408324%2Ceuropean-centre-of-palaeontology-established-at-the-university-of-opole.html. Accessed: 4th August 2019.
[7] Wild Areas Network (2019). ‘Science Meets Adventure’, Wild Areas Network. Available at: https://www.wildareas.net/palaeontology-dig-camps. Accessed: 4th August 2019.